Paul Farrell in Perth
19 April 2014
Fifteen-hour days are par for the course for the unsung heroes on the frontline of the aerial search for the missing plane
On the frontline of the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane, one brief second can make all the difference.
“You might have a second or a second and a half between seeing something and it disappearing from your view,” said Jim Maclean, one of the searchers who has been with the Perth state emergency service (SES) for 32 years.
“So you’ve got to look at it, identify it and decide whether it warrants being called in before it disappears out the side of your view. It’s quite intense, you’ve got to be really concentrating all the time,” he said.
But the group of people doing perhaps the most important job in the search are taking on the task without payment. The SES air search observers are ordinary Australians and they are all volunteers. There are now more than 200 involved in the search from across the country, who have put in more than 2,000 hours of flight time searching for the missing plane.
Maclean, who moved to Australia from Scotland, says he is “ostensibly retired”, which has given him more time to work with the SES when volunteers are needed. “Although my wife doesn’t like it much,” he says with a bark of laughter.
The immense task of finding the missing plane, which the SES observers have been involved in since 22 March, is daunting. But Lyn Bryant, another volunteer who has been with the SES for more than 15 years, says it’s a task they will gladly take on to help give the families of those on board the flight closure.
“We’re just up there trying to find evidence that this plane went down here in the ocean to give the relatives and friends something to grasp,” she said.
The SES observers are tasked to fly on the civil aircraft involved in the search. The days are long, typically lasting about 15 hours. Maclean says he’s up at 5.30am to get to Perth airport in time for wheels-up at 7.30.
The searchers usually spend three hours heading out to sea and three hours heading back, leaving about three or four hours of actual search time.
While a series of pings believed to be from the black box have narrowed the air search area slightly, it still spans many thousands of kilometres. Searches are divided into “legs”, flying in a straight line for about 30 to 40 minutes. Those periods require intense concentration, and are no easy task.
“If you only move your eyes then you go to sleep. So you’ve got to move your head in stages of foreground, middleground, foreground, we do that all the time and we just keep moving our heads and talking to each other,” Maclean says. “We don’t stop searching, but we talk to each other and it just keeps the concentration going.”
Searchers are taught to observe rather than see. It may seem like semantics, but the precision involved in observing needs pinpoint accuracy and attention to detail.
“We teach them about the search patterns they’re flying and safety around aircraft and tarmacs,” says the Australian Maritime Safety authority’s Peter Buckley.
The method used for the search is called “saccading”. The searchers will move their heads in fixed positions to scan down and back to ensure the greatest possible area of vision is taken in.
“When you look you poise as you go up and you poise as you go down. So you’re basically covering the whole of the area that you need to cover, but as you’re moving. Your peripheral vision comes into play as well,” Bryant says.
It requires immense concentration. The sun beats down relentlessly on the ocean surface, making it even harder for the searchers to spot potential debris. The windows of the jets are small, narrowing the field of vision.
Each plane usually carries five observers so that one can rest while four continue, and they rotate sides “so that we don’t get a crick in our necks”, Maclean says. But when something is spotted a ripple of excitement goes through the plane.
But sightings of objects have become much more sporadic since the early days of the search and none has been confirmed as being linked with the plane.
The Australian prime minister Tony Abbott and the joint agency centre overseeing the search have indicated they may need to reassess the approach to the search in coming weeks if they gain no further leads.
For Bryant and Maclean, it’s a job they will gladly keep doing. For as long as the air search continues, they will keep putting up their hands to volunteer.